Alumnus Helps Launch New Age of Aquarius

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by Karen Rhine
via Florida Tech Today

On the morning of June 10, 2011, Gary Lagerloef ’71 watched as a Delta II rocket with the Aquarius/SAC-D spacecraft payload aboard launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The moment was a culmination as well as a beginning for what Lagerloef calls “a dream come true in many ways.”

NASA appointed the ocean scientist as principal investigator of the Aquarius/SAC-D satellite mission in 2003. He played a major role in getting approval for the project, which will study the interactions between the ocean circulation, global water cycle and climate by measuring ocean salinity from space. Since then, Lagerloef has set science objectives, coordinated the effort among hundreds of participants. He will continue for at least three more years as the satellite cuts swaths 657 kilometers above the Earth to map the salinity in all the Earth’s ice-free oceans. The satellite could be viable for as many as 10 years.

“Ocean salinity is already measured intermittently from ships and buoys, but Aquarius will provide a global view. Salinity is a missing link that ties ocean circulation with rainfall and evaporation patterns and connects how these relate to climate variations. These interactions are poorly understood. Measuring ocean salinity over time can clarify this understanding and lead to improved climate forecasts,” he said.

The concentration of salt at the ocean’s surface tells scientists about global ocean circulation and how fresh water moves between the ocean and other reservoirs. Ocean circulation plays a key role in distributing solar energy and maintaining climate by moving heat from Earth’s equator to the poles.

Aquarius salinity data, combined with data from other satellite missions that measure sea level, rainfall, temperature, ocean color and winds, should provide a much clearer picture of how the ocean works. The Aquarius mission will help climate modelers to better understand the ocean-atmosphere processes that are changing Earth’s climate.

“With this data,” Lagerloef said, “we can create more accurate computer models that connect the ocean-atmosphere-land-ice systems, and we’ll be in a better position to make long-term climate forecasts.”

Lagerloef’s oversight of the mission includes NASA’s development of the Aquarius instrument and close collaboration with NASA’s partner, Argentina’s space agency, Comision Nacional de Actividades Espaciales, who built the SAC-D satellite that carries Aquarius as well as other Argentine and European sensors. He also oversees NASA science teams representing numerous research institutions and universities as well as the collaboration with a European project to measure soil moisture and ocean salinity. In his 40-year career since earning his Florida Tech sheepskin, Lagerloef has acquired skills and experiences that all bear directly on his leadership of Aquarius.

Today he is senior scientist and president of Earth and Space Research (ESR), a small nonprofit research institute he co-founded in Seattle, Wash., in 1995.

During his time at Florida Tech, oceanography and physics were taught in close cooperation, he recalled, a combination he enjoyed while developing his expertise in physical oceanography. “It was very interesting and theoretical, and I applied what I learned when I went to graduate school,” he said.

After Florida Tech, he taught marine science at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy while earning a master’s degree in oceanography from the University of Connecticut. He then put to sea, working for NOAA as a seagoing officer on research ships in the Pacific and at the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle while completing a physical oceanography doctoral degree in 1984 from the University of Washington. He then spent a few years in private sector marine science.

In 1988 NASA tapped Lagerloef to become physical oceanography program manager: it was at about this time that he became interested in satellite remote sensing.

“I found the new field very exciting. It gave me a sense of being involved in something on the frontier,” he said. He has sustained that excitement at ESR where he has developed several research projects devoted to studies of the upper ocean dynamics and climate variability using satellites.

At this writing, it has been exactly one month since the launch of Aquarius. Happily, the satellite is performing as expected. It separated and jettisoned from the rocket; its signal was acquired by ground controllers and its solar arrays deployed to provide power. The satellite’s attitude control parameters have been tuned to keep it on course and its telemetry, which allows remote measurement and reporting of information, is activated. By the end of August, transmission of scientific data is set to begin and Lagerloef’s work will begin a new phase.

“It’s a very significant, quite complicated, sophisticated mission,” Lagerloef said. “It’s really thrilling to be involved in a project like this.”

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